December 12, 2007

Let Your Heart Be Light

This is a theme post we do each year and it’s one of my favorites. Last year, a few weeks after I posted this write-up, Entertainment Weekly totally copied the idea and had a feature article on the subject—okay, given production schedules, they probably had it done way before my post and I doubt that they read 77 Santas. But it’s nice to dream. Anyway, as the song says, have yourself a merry little Christmas and enjoy.
I’m going to call “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” the most depressing Christmas song ever written. In fact, it was originally even more somber than the version that we know today.

The song was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Judy Garland made the song famous in her 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland found the original lyrics too sad for a Christmas song. There is a fatalistic view on the world—there is talk of everyone being together, of muddling through, friends once gone who will come back. It reminds me a hymn almost, that promises a great reward in Heaven, where all friends and family will one day meet each other again.

In fact, the original version, which Hugh Martin didn’t want to rewrite, did include religious undertones.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days,
Happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows.
From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Most versions that we hear today are a combination of these original lyrics. However, in 2001, Martin wrote a version called “Have Yourself A Blessed Little Christmas.” It is a much more sacred version. Also, it’s been noted that the chord progression to “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is strikingly similar to “Blue Moon,” which had been written ten years earlier. The only difference is additional chord progressions at the ending and bridge.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland

Garland’s version, which we’ve saved for this post, probably has the most recognizable lyrics. There is a tender delicateness to this version—that quiet, music box-like introduction that draws the listener into the word. It’s beautiful.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
Next year,
All our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow.
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Frank Sinatra

Ah, but there are even more versions. Frank Sinatra recorded a lighter version. It’s a bit happier with updated lyrics. Unfortunately, I don’t have this version of the song! But I have another version by the Chairman. If Frank’s singing, it can’t be that bad, right? The violin at the beginning lightens into a warm, slightly jazz-like swing. Here are those lyrics that Sinatra tweaked a bit.

Christmas future is far away
Christmas past is past
Christmas present is here today
Bringing joy that may last
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.
Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.
Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself A merry little Christmas now.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Hem

Hem’s version was posted on The Late Greats the other (check them out, for a great Christmas mix, plus some other great songs as well). Driven by a piano, it’s a straight forward and sad version.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – The Carpenters

The Carpenters have a great Christmas album. Their version features a nice little introduction by Karen Carpenter which I don’t believe is in other versions, though I might be mistaken.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – The Pretenders

This comes from the first volume of A Very Special Christmas.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Andre Gagnon

This is an artist that I know little about. Gagnon’s version is a surprisingly beautiful, all instrumental version of the song. Once again, a piano drives the song.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Nat King Cole

The King of Christmas songs in my book, Cole’s golden voice rises above the somewhat cheesy synthesizers here. Of all the versions, this one seems the most dated in terms of production values. But still, nothing compares with the man’s voice.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Sarah McLachlan

This version is melancholy beyond compare. The little instrumental flairs between verses are beautiful and the piano is beautiful when mixed with bells, strings, and the quiet cymbals.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Bright Eyes

A delicate and straight-forward version of the song. Stark and spare.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Johnny Maestro and The Brooklyn Bridge

Doo-wop and without music—striking and in its harmonies.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Ruth Browne

Ruth Browne was one of the 50s best unsung R&B singers. This version is slow and haunting—you can hear that pain in her voice.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Aimee Mann

For a woman known for her melancholy, this song is surprising a bit more upbeat that you might expect. But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Mel Torme

This is my favorite version of the song, originally featured in Home Alone. Torme was called The Velvet Fog, and for good reason—that voice is smooth. Fans of the television show Night Court might remember that Harry Anderson’s character loved Mel Torme. For some reason, my father loved Nigh Court and Mel Torme. My mother and I saw Home Alone twice in December of 1990. My father had been dead for a few months by that point. It had been a hard year and we hadn’t laughed that hard in a long, long time. Even though I had heard the song plenty of times, when Torme’s song played at the end, I actually listened to the lyrics for the first time. The promise that next year would be better, that someday everyone would be together, and that troubles would be out of sight—it stuck with me. Composer John Williams produced this version and adds his unmistakable instrumentation behind Torme’s warm and endearing vocals. Every time I watch Home Alone, I am reminded of sitting in a dark theater with my mother and laughing until it hurt.

6 comments:

Chris said...

This is Chris Willman from Entertainment Weekly. I do read your site! But I didn't steal the "Merry Little Christmas" idea.

Have you seen the list of my 100 favorite Christmas downers that I have up now on the site?

JV said...

Chris, you just made my holiday season. Seriously. My first issue of EW was from (I believe) June of 1996, with Nic Cage and Sean Connery on the cover for The Rock. I worship that magazine and the writing, and was so happy to see your article last year. Jay Woodruff came to visit my college in Pennsylvania when I was an undergrad and you would have thought Robert Frost was coming--I was so stoked. And of course I'd never think anyone at EW stole an idea--in fact, I'm pretty sure I got someone expelled in college for plagarizing Lisa's review of Best In Show in the student newspaper. Anyway, I love the magazine, and I did indeed see your list. You are dead on. Nothing beats out Judy Garland. Thanks for reading the site. I'm so excited about this.

BobzCat said...

Judy's version is so poignant. You can hear the pain in that voice.

This is a song written during wartime. When you think of it that way, it takes on new meanings.

Sinatra requested the verse change in 1957 for an album of upbeat Christmas tunes. But to my ears that new verse always rang a little false in the context of the rest of the song.

Wonderful site, by the way. Lifts my mood every season.

Freezing in England said...

I've just discovered your blog this December and it's an absolute treat of seasonal goodies. I'm a huge fan of the Hem, Low and Ravonettes tracks you've features, it's so nice to see them popping up here with a huge amount of tracks I don't know alongside!

Commander Salamander said...

Don't think Nat King Cole ever recorded this song.

Sounds more like Brian McKnight if I were a betting man.

Chris said...

Oh, I know you didn't really think we stole it. Great minds think alike! I'd been meaning to do that article for years. Glad I finally got the go-ahead to do it. When I made the call to Hugh Martin, I was thinking, "Please let him still be alive this Christmas." And of course he was (and is).

Enjoying the site. Tonight I'm making my annual Christmas mix CD. Harder and harder to find something great I've never heard before each year, but I'm hoping to be tipped off to an unknown classic...